Pink hair, hockey player and triathlon runner ‚Äì three characteristics you probably wouldn‚Äôt expect from a professional forensic psychologist. But cool hair and athletic ability aren‚Äôt the only surprising parts about Dr. Patricia Zapf; she‚Äôs also a teacher sailing with Semester at Sea.
‚ÄúSemester at Sea is such a cool experience,‚Äù said Zapf, a previous University of Alabama professor. ‚ÄúI see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel, teach and learn.‚Äù
Zapf teaches three courses (on the Spring 2018 Voyage) ‚Äì Adolescent, Abnormal and Forensic Psychology ‚Äì at Semester at Sea, a study abroad program where more than 500 students, faculty and staff members travel to countries all over the world while sailing on a ship. A former faculty member at UA, crimson runs deep for Zapf. Born and raised in Alberta, Canada, Zapf completed her PhD and masters in clinical psychology with an emphasis in forensics before she began her first teaching job in the Department of Psychology at UA in 1999.
‚ÄúI loved the psychology department because it was so tight-knit,‚Äù Zapf said. ‚ÄúAlmost everyone on faculty was from somewhere else, but we all found ourselves in Alabama‚Äî it was like this liberal bubble in a very conservative state. The students were wonderful and the faculty members were so supportive. I have only great things to say about my time there.‚Äù
Zapf‚Äôs younger brother was the one who inspired her passion for forensic psychology. After becoming a paraplegic from a hockey accident, her brother still maintained his adrenaline, rush-seeking personality. The fact that he was injured significantly but the core aspects of his personality remained the same fascinated Zapf, and she began researching the correlation between crime and personality. While she was teaching at UA, she saw the need for a higher level of practice in forensic psychology. Her and her students collected 486 completed competency and insanity evaluations and checked for discrepancies between evaluators‚Äô opinions and court opinions. This insight led Zapf to start her own company, Concept, a professional online training company for forensic psychologists.
‚ÄúWhat we found was that a lot of the reports didn‚Äôt meet the standards that were expected by the law,‚Äù Zapf said. ‚ÄúIt was clear how subpar some of those evaluation reports were, and it hit home the need to improve the quality of the work that we‚Äôre doing as forensic psychologists.‚Äù
On top of managing her business, Zapf continues to teach at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York and conduct her research. She focuses on forensic evaluations and looking at people‚Äôs competency to stand trial.
‚ÄúI always wanted to be a faculty member from the start,‚Äù Zapf said. ‚ÄúMy love is research so I didn‚Äôt think twice about what I wanted to do.‚Äù
She became interested in Semester at Sea in 2016 while she was working on a project in the Ukraine developing a tool to be used to select individuals for its new national police force. One of her colleagues had sailed before and suggested she look into it. This spring will be Zapf‚Äôs first semester as a Semester at Sea faculty member, and she made an impression on the rest of the shipboard community.
‚ÄúI signed up for the class because I knew my home school didn‚Äôt offer it, so I just jumped on the opportunity,‚Äù said Ellison Bonner, a junior at the University of Missouri. ‚ÄúThen once I saw who the teacher was I got really excited because I had studied about her in my other psychology classes and heard about her different court cases.‚Äù
Practicing her career at sea creates new opportunities and obstacles to experience. According to Zapf, forensic psychology is a relatively new field and she‚Äôs looking forward to comparing forensic psychology in other countries to the United States.
‚ÄúA lot of the time we don‚Äôt really think beyond the United States, and so we‚Äôre always teaching our courses with American textbooks and talking about how things are in the U.S.,‚Äù Zapf said. ‚ÄúEven if I‚Äôve taught the material before, I haven‚Äôt taught it with respect to different countries, which gives me an opportunity to also learn. I feel like I‚Äôm learning just as much as the students are and we‚Äôre sort of making our way on this adventure together.‚Äù
After Semester at Sea, Zapf intends to focus on professional training and developing more ways of making forensic psychology information accessible to everyone. She plans to continue to find ways to adventure while following her passion.
‚ÄúToo many people get into careers for various reasons and it‚Äôs not their passion,‚Äù Zapf said. ‚ÄúFind your passion. That‚Äôs the one thing I would say to any student and the one thing I try and drill into my son‚Äôs head. Be happy. Life‚Äôs too short. Make it what you want.‚Äù
Megan Perkins is a Semester at Sea Spring 2018 alumnus and a student at University of Alabama. Her profile of Professor Zapf was written during the Spring 2018 Voyage and shared in honor of Teacher Appreciation week.